Why you need vendors to adopt OVF before you move to the cloud

The Open Virtualization Format is your way out of cloud vendor lock-in.

If you are entertaining the idea of cloud computing (and research shows that nearly every IT department is at least thinking about the cloud), then here's a standard you need to watch, the open virtualization format. OVF is managed by the Desktop Management Task Force and was initially launched in 2007 as a method to transport virtual machines from one virtualization appliance to another. But it is quickly becoming the de facto method for cloud vendors to transfer applications and data between data centers, even if those data centers are using different hypervisors. This is the standard that will eventually keep you from vendor lock-in should you opt to move into the cloud.

On Wednesday morning, I attended an invitational roundtable event hosted by F5 Networks at VMworld. The topic was (what else?) cloud computing, the buzzword of 2009. (The cloud is everywhere here at VMworld from the chatter at the coffee houses to the banners on the booths.) While most IT guys are worried about security, authenticating users in the cloud and reliable service, an even bigger gotcha could be vendor lock in, unless the folks at the DMTF have their way.

Users tend to hire cloud vendors by negotiating on service-level-agreements, often as a black box service. The user doesn't care how the cloud provider configures the infrastructure, as long as the user gets the applications and performance that it specifies in its contract. But let's say the vendor starts missing its SLA. Now the user's IT folks have no clue about the applications and data configurations. Can the user walk away? A contract will likely specify that if the user wants to leave, the vendor must turn over all of the user's data. That's not hard. A cloud vendor can hand you a stack of tape drives and send you on your way. Problem is, where can you take those drives to have yourself up and running on a competing cloud vendor, or even to bring it back in house?

Enter OVF. As VMware CTO Steve Herrod described it during his VMworld keynote, OVF is to virtual machines what the MP3 specification is to audio. The spec wraps a virtual machine into a standard API that can be plugged into any data center that supports the standard. More good news about OVF is that everyone who is anyone in the virtualization game is already on board to support it. This includes AMD, CA, Cisco, Citrix, EMC, HP, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Novell, Rackspace, RedHat, Savvis, SunGard, Sun Microsystems, and VMware.

The DMTF has already held one private plugfest and is ramping up more formal OVF certification processes as it evolves into a cloud interoperability standard. More than 30 vendors are already involved, says Winston Bumpus, DMTF president (and a VMware employee). The DMTF recently launched the"Open Cloud Standards Incubator," too, to brainstorming ways to make the standard effective for the cloud.

As great as this sounds, there are still some gotchas before OVF can solve the vendor lock-in problem. For one thing, users need to pressure vendors to certify themselves as compliant for inport and export of OVF files. In other words, everyone is going to want to accept another's OVF and convert it to their own platform, but you need to ensure that they can port your data to OVF, too. Being active in the standards process is not a guarantee that OVF will show up in all of a vendor's products. Cisco reportedly doesn't support OVF with its Unified Computing System (UCS). Likewise, while some cloud providers are involved, not all of them are, yet. Eventually, you might even want your ISVs to prove support. If they were to offer their software as OVF downloads, that software could then be easily plunked onto any vendor's hypervisor. IBM set the stage for this by offering a beta version of Websphere as an OVF download last year.

More work needs to be done on the spec, but it will be up to users to insist that vendors offer more than just lip-service support. If OVF works as it should, the cloud will become a friendlier, more interoperable place.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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